Guest Post: What Career Services Directors Always Wanted To Tell You (But You Never Asked)

The following is a guest post from Sharon Belden Castonguay, EdD, Director of the Graduate Career Management Center at Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business

If you are a recent or soon-to-be college graduate, you are probably getting a lot of bad advice.

For instance, at some point a responsible adult—a professor, your dad—may have encouraged you to continue your education after college. What about law school? Stable, prestigious, high salary, what’s not to like?

Here’s today’s reality: According to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), only 65.4% of those who received JDs in 2011 were practicing law nine months after graduation. Which you need to do to pay off the loans: those graduating from private law schools in 2011 had an average debt of $125,000. Even if you do get a job your salary isn’t likely to be up to the task of paying that off anytime soon.

So should you listen to your English professor and get a PhD? Not if you want to be a professor. The Chronicle of Higher Education regularly reports on the job hunts of frustrated candidates spending months or years applying for the small handful of discipline-specific positions available, jobs you’re only eligible for after five, seven, even ten years of graduate education.

What about business school? Even if an MBA program is willing to let you in immediately after college, think twice. Getting an MBA doesn’t necessarily help you compete for jobs; rather, it puts you into a new applicant pool, one filled with competitors with at least a few years of experience.

So what’s an unemployed new grad to do?

Keep in mind that what your parents and professors are probably seeking for you is stability, a soft landing for you that lets them sleep better at night. But employment stability no longer exists in most fields, including those like law or academe that historically were considered quite safe from the vagaries of the economy. Once you let go of the idea that you’re going to stay in the same place—the same job, the same organization, the same career—you may find yourself willing to consider options you haven’t so far.

Several years ago I conducted a research study on businesspeople who graduated from college during the economic downturn of the early 1990s; I was curious to see how they had navigated their career paths given their difficult launch. In the beginning, they had largely taken a path of least resistance, taking on jobs like restaurant hostess, liquor store clerk, or office temp in order to pay the bills (sound familiar?). When I interviewed them they were in their mid-to late-thirties, and all had ultimately managed to achieve career success on the surface: gainful employment, and a level of prestige and income that they could be proud to report to their alumni magazines.

But they weren’t all happy where they’d ended up. Most were satisfied, but others had continued on that path of least resistance for over a decade. They took advantage of new opportunities as the economy improved, but without really stopping to ask themselves how their interests were developing over time.

The lesson to be learned here is take what you can get for now, but keep seeking advice from people you meet who are doing things you think you might want to do. Pay close attention to how your interests grow and change, and jump on any opportunity that will teach you something you want to learn, broaden your professional network, and that will be looked on favorably by future employers (and, yes, graduate schools).

Your first job does not need to define you, and there is no reason a poor job market should rob you of a rewarding career. Take from someone who has seen the long view: You have more control over your professional fate than you think.

Sharon Belden Castonguay, EdD, is the Director of the Graduate Career Management Center at Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business in New York. She also maintains a private practice, SBC Career Consulting.

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